William H Macy: Master class

Once, William H Macy was Hollywood's best-kept secret. Then came an Oscar nomination, a string of scene-stealing roles - and marriage to a Desperate Housewife. Andrew Gumbel met him.
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The Independent Online

William H Macy can't remember exactly what he was doing the night that Bobby Kennedy was shot - he had just turned 18, and was spending the summer working on his father's dairy farm in western Maryland - but the memory of it remains an indelible part of his experience as a liberal-minded, conscription-eligible young man at the height of the Vietnam War.

"Of all the assassinations that happened in that era," he says, "it was the one that killed the dream the most. Until that moment, we were the baby boomers who believed that with love and marijuana we could change the world."

Thirty-eight years later, Macy is now one of a panoply of Hollywood's finest who have chosen to stand up and be counted in Emilio Estevez's loving homage to Kennedy, the ensemble movie Bobby. The film focuses on 22 principal characters and their activities at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on 4 June 1968, the day that Kennedy fought and won the California primary - only to be gunned down in the hotel kitchen moments after declaring victory.

Macy plays the hotel's manager and has one of the more eventful days of any of the characters: he preps the place for Kennedy's anticipated victory party, fires his catering manager because he doesn't want to give his Mexican-American staff time off to vote, has sex with a telephone receptionist, played by Heather Graham, gets caught by his wife, played by Sharon Stone, and ends up so close to the shooting that his dinner jacket and pleated dress shirt get spattered with Kennedy's blood.

With a cast that also includes Anthony Hopkins, Harry Belafonte, Martin Sheen, Helen Hunt, Elijah Wood, Lindsay Lohan, Demi Moore, Laurence Fishburne and Christian Slater ("It was a running gag on the set: who's going to show up next?"), as Macy puts it, "Clearly, the idea of telling the story of Bobby is one that resonates."

The shoot was also a final homage to the Ambassador itself. Aside from the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub and a small part of the lobby, the sprawling hotel complex has been demolished to make way for a much needed school mega-complex. The wrecking balls were in full swing even as the actors were filming their scenes. Estevez had to plead to leave the kitchen pantry standing just long enough to finish his work. "They were literally tearing the place down around us," Macy recalls.

None of the principals was based on real people. As his starting point, Estevez used a famous photograph of a bleeding Kennedy on the floor of the Ambassador's kitchen pantry, with a Mexican bus boy holding his hand to comfort him. From there, Estevez gave free rein to his imagination. So Macy's character, called Paul, has nothing to do with the real-life hotel manager of the time. Not that that made any difference to his preparation for the part. Macy, like his friend, mentor and longtime collaborator David Mamet, does not believe in delving into his characters any further than the writer has already delved. He doesn't believe that creating a back-story - a cherished aspect of the Method school - does anything for the performance.

"I'm a written-page guy," he says. "The writer gives you everything you need." And, in this case, what he was given was a pleasingly decisive character - a nice change from the self-defeating sad sacks that have become a bit of a Bill Macy speciality ever since his breakout role a decade ago in the Coen brothers' classic Fargo. There is an argument to be made that Paul has his self-destructive weaknesses, too, certainly when it comes to marital fidelity, but it is an argument that Macy himself firmly rejects.

"Any time you can get Heather Graham in the sack," he says, with more than a trace of deadpan humour, "weak-willed is not a description that fits ... Having an affair doesn't make you weak-willed. Our presidents have affairs.

"I think of him as a nice, strong character. That's what I liked about him. He's not a misfit. Hey, between Heather Graham and Sharon Stone, my character gets to fuck the best-looking women in the movie."

It dawns on me that the real-life Bill Macy may not talk much like Jerry Lundegaard, his Fargo character, or Donnie Smith, the embittered former child television star he played in Magnolia, or Senator Ortolan Finistirre, the anti-tobacco crusader from 2005's Thank You For Smoking. But he does relish a distinctly Mamet-inflected style of dialogue - whip-smart, bone-dry, and almost casual in its use of both vulgarity and witticism.

Mamet was his teacher at Goddard College in Vermont, and the two have been close ever since. "He's taught me everything I know," Macy says. Macy regularly appeared in Mamet's stage plays and, later, in his films, from House of Games and Things Change to State and Main.

Macy also subscribes to a theory of acting developed by Mamet (with help from actors like himself) called practical aesthetics. When I ask him about it, Macy wonders if I really want to go down that road. "When I talk to people about acting technique," he warns me, "I see the will to live literally drain from their bodies."

It turns out, though, to be a fascinating insight into the way Macy works. "The most outrageous tenet of practical aesthetics," he says, "is that emotions cannot be controlled. They're not part of the technique ... For many actors, this is an outrageous notion. But psychoanalysis backs it up. Mamet says - forget the emotions. They're boring anyway. They're a bore to watch. The best emotion comes from watching a brave person fighting for something, fighting to fix a problem they can't fix."

Macy's rules of good acting are not unlike the crime writer Elmore Leonard's rules of good writing - keep it lean and spare, and have faith that the impact of the piece comes from speech and action, not from a lot of adjectives or florid displays of emotion. That's not to say that Macy won't cry in a scene, say. The point is that crying should not be the focus. " All actors have the ability to sit and cry like a baby. That's why we became actors," he says. "It's not that hard to do. But that's never what the scene is about. It's more like an accent, an external. It's not about you crying, it's about your character trying to do something ...

"There's a rule in acting - if you cry, the audience won't. If you laugh, they won't. It's theatrical suicide to laugh at your own joke. On the other hand, there's nothing more heartbreaking than someone being stoical in the face of tragedy."

Like all rules, of course, there are exceptions. Macy's character in Magnolia goes through wringing emotions, including a scene in which he loses his teeth and ends up weeping by a roadside. Macy's contention remains: "Even if I hadn't cried, the scene would have worked. Perhaps not as well, but it would still have worked."

One of the pleasures of talking to Macy is knowing that he is an old pro, an actor who has gone through his paces in theatre as well as television and film and enjoys almost unbounded respect from his peers. For 20 years, he has taught acting, mostly through the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York, which he co-founded with Mamet.

On movie sets, he will occasionally be asked to help coach some of the more inexperienced players. Directors love to cast him, although, by his account, they can end up just a little bit afraid of him. When a first-time indie director offers him a part - a common occurrence over the past decade - he likes to give them a little speech about the need to be super-prepared. Making a movie, he says, is not about making art: "It's more like fighting a war ... When directors come to the set thinking they're going to make art, that's where they go horribly wrong.

"A film needs to be a benign dictatorship, and it's a long, horrible day when it's not. The phrase I hate hearing is: 'We'll shoot it both ways.' The fact is, there's barely enough time or money to shoot it one way." He gets equally agitated when a director allows an actor to quibble over some small detail, like a door being left open or shut. "It's 10 minutes out of everybody's lives, because the director doesn't have the guts to say - I want the door shut. It's just bad leadership."

Macy is not a grouch so much as a man with high professional standards: "I like to think of myself as a team player, as someone who's got the director's back. I've certainly scared some directors, especially as I get older. In my experience, if you want to suggest a change and you've got a good reason with logic behind it, more often than not the director will listen. If he says no, I always make a point of shutting up and doing it their way ... It's a point of pride for me to make it great no matter what they do."

That said, he admits he is "chafing at the bit" on set and shoots his mouth off where perhaps he shouldn't. He recently ripped Lindsay Lohan in public for her poor time-keeping. "I worry about young actors who become fabulously wealthy and powerful at a young age. I would have exploded if it had happened to me," he says. "Twenty years on stage teaches you a certain humility, and a work ethic."

That humility, in turn, is based on the realisation that acting is, in his words, "a tedious job. Being an actor is a very limited profession," he says. "Our purview is so small. If you are quick-witted or you want a view of the whole, it's not going to be for you because the job is so circumscribed. Our job is to shut up. It's not our job to make the film good, or make it hang together. That's the director's job."

Macy is hoping to get his first shot at directing himself this year. For the past couple of years, he's had a project in the works called The Deal - about a European movie shoot that veers wildly and unpredictably out of control.

Like many of the independent productions Macy has been involved with, this one is fraught with uncertainty and a lot of waiting for both money and headline names (in this case, Meg Ryan). "It's now a go for March," he says confidently. "I have four films coming up, and they all shoot in March. I have an inkling what a pregnant woman feels like. Every day I get up and pray, please make something happen." A pregnant woman, of course, can be rather surer than a film-maker that she will have something to show for her efforts. "Yup," Macy crackles, without missing a beat, "she definitely knows there's going to be an opening."

Macy certainly has set ideas on how to direct, but he also knows that theory and practice can be very different. "I don't know if I'm going to enjoy directing," he says. "A director's job does not have boundaries ... I've seen directors go directly from the last day of shooting to the hospital. It's not uncommon at all. Plenty of others spend weeks with that thousand-yard stare in their eyes. They are just mentally and physically exhausted."

Macy is now 56 - not so hard to guess, perhaps, from his wonderfully expressive lined face and ringed eyes. But in some ways he is still relatively new to the bounties that Hollywood is capable of bestowing on its favourite sons and daughters. He still retains a vivid memory of his first flush of fame, and recently relived it all over again when his wife, the actress Felicity Huffman, shot to prominence both for her part in the hit TV show Desperate Housewives and for her Oscar-nominated role as a transsexual in Duncan Tucker's Transamerica.

"An Academy Award nomination changes everything," he says. " You get to sit at the grown-ups' table, you can add a zero to your salary, you don't have to audition any more. Everything you've dreamt of comes true. It's absolutely numbing."

He remembers sitting in the Shrine Auditorium when he was up for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Fargo and thinking - at least briefly - what a unique honour the moment was. "Then I realised, I know these people, they're just schmucks like me. Some of them owe me money."

Macy is too smart to be fooled by the Oscars hype - "It's marketing, man. It's not designed to honour us. It's designed to sell tickets" - but that doesn't mean he isn't ready to fall for it anyway. "Every actor in the universe has been rehearsing their Oscar speech since they were a teenager," he says. "If you get a nomination, you know you did something right that year ... Yup, I'd like to have one of those suckers on my mantel."

'Bobby' opens nationwide on 26 January